by Dr Russell Woodbridge


Russell is a mission worker from the USA who lives and works in Ukraine.

 

Ukraine, a land filled with radiant sunflowers rising up to the blue sky, is ready to send workers into the harvest fields. The Protestant church is mobilising people to take the gospel to other nations, to reap the harvest that Jesus promised (Luke 10:2).

 

How is this mission possible for a church that has a history of being persecuted by the government, living on the edge of society as a 'cult' and being deprived of basic human rights? The simple answer is that the power of God is at work in His people. However, it is also a witness to the dedication and resilience of Christians in Ukraine. Prior to 1991, the government controlled, marginalised and persecuted religious groups. However, when Ukraine became an independent country, the church used this new freedom to grow through evangelism and church planting. Other countries sent mission workers and aid to assist in the process. Today, the Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine, the largest Protestant group, has about 2,500 churches with 120,000 members. According to government statistics, there are also about 1,600 Pentecostal churches.

 

While these numbers are impressive, only 2% of Ukraine's 45 million people self-identify as Protestant, which includes Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Presbyterian. About two-thirds of Ukrainians are Orthodox and another 7% belong to the Greek Catholic Church. In addition, there is a significant population of Crimean Tatars who are Muslim. Orthodoxy dominates the religious landscape because it has been the official religion of Ukraine since AD988, when Prince Vladimir went 'shopping' for a national church to unite his people. He allegedly chose Orthodoxy due to its impressive worship; he was promised a beautiful bride as well if he would be baptised into the faith. The long history of Orthodoxy as Ukraine's national religion is still felt today. Despite being a minority in a land of turmoil, Protestant churches have thrived.

 

After national independence in 1991, the Orange Revolution took place between 2004-2005 and more recently, in 2014, there was the Euromaidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity. While rigged presidential elections provoked the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan Revolution was sparked by the president's refusal to sign a trade treaty with the European Union: further proof of blatant political corruption within the country.

 

On 20th February 2014, the Euromaidan Revolution ended in the deaths of at least 67 people when snipers fired on protestors in Kiev city centre. About 130 people died during the entire revolution. In the aftermath, President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea was invaded by Russian forces and a de facto war started in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian people have suffered, protested, and sought peace and freedom for their land; however, this always seems to elude them. When you share a border and a history with Russia, attaining stability and peace is difficult.

 

Even with their history and challenges, Ukrainians are generous, hospitable people, who are willing to share their culture and, of course, food with friends and guests. They also have a spirit of perseverance and hope for a better future. In these circumstances the church has grown numerically, developed and matured. Part of this maturity is their vision to reach the world with the gospel. As one leader said to me, "For the past 20 years, other Christians in the West have blessed us greatly, and we have benefited from their prayers and assistance. God has blessed us and now it is our turn to bless other countries."

 

God has blessed the churches in Ukraine with growth in numbers, resilience in character, seminaries for teaching, church leaders and buildings for a reason: to be a blessing to other nations and to send out their own mission workers into the harvest fields. After 1991, numerous Ukrainians went to Russia as pioneer mission workers and today a significant number of church leaders in Russia are originally from Ukraine. Following this initial movement, churches focused on evangelism within Ukraine and the emphasis on outward-looking mission seemed to wane. Praise God that this introspective tendency is changing.

 

Awakening the Church

Numerous efforts are being made to awaken the church to its responsibility to reach the harvest fields beyond Ukraine. There are many Ukrainians who have left over the years to serve in other countries as mission workers and their ministry is increasingly being highlighted. Ukrainian workers are now based in places such as Central Asia, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea and Russia, and all of them have been serving in these places between five and ten years.

 

Several seminaries in Ukraine have recently started international mission-training programmes. In 2013 the Odessa Theological Seminary streamlined its mission programme into a one-year course, enabling students to receive three months' training in the summer and then spend six to nine months serving in another country. Several students returned to their placement country for long-term service. Two students, Anna and Galya, have spent the past three years in Uganda working with the poor. Other students from the programme now live in the Middle East and Central Asia, serving in Muslim contexts. A relatively new programme in another theological seminary already has several students who have served in Central Asia and Poland, and one couple is preparing for long-term service in South America. These programmes help equip Ukrainians to do what God has called them to do, and enable their churches to be active participants in the Great Commission.

 

Conferences dedicated to international mission have been organised, including the Youth Mission Conference, which started four years ago and is geared towards young people. Several hundred attend each conference and listen to Ukrainian mission workers who return to share their stories. Likewise, another evangelical group held a conference for its leaders with the theme 'International Missions', and in August 2016 they organised a mission forum in Kiev. Ukrainian workers inspired the attendees to get involved and to catch a vision for mission.

 

There has been a surge in short-term mission trips from churches, to assist their workers in the field. Some of these opportunities arise through personal contacts, but others have been organised through different unions or associations.

 

The movement is just starting and there is tremendous potential in Ukraine to send more workers to Eastern Europe, Central Asia and beyond. God has prepared the churches for such a time as this. Ukrainians have many advantages that can be used for the spreading of God's glory. They speak Russian, and are closer geographically and emotionally to other countries with a Russian-influenced culture. They often do not require visas to visit countries in Central Asia, or to enter Russia itself, and they are quickly accepted in society. Moreover, Ukrainians better understand the mentality and living conditions of these countries' populations. They are also extremely creative, flexible and resourceful which are all excellent qualities for mission workers.

 

Many challenges exist in this work and there is a need for development. Churches and leaders require further mobilisation for international missions. There are also challenges in terms of logistics and finances. Currently a Ukraine-based mission agency does not exist; many nationals are sent independently under the auspices of their local church or union, or they find a Western agency to support them.Prayer is needed to see this vision spread to all the churches.

 

May God use Ukraine to promote mission, cultivate souls for the Kingdom and grow healthy churches in other nations to the glory of God!

 

  

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